Forgotten Battles of the Second World War

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Jan 12, 2007
My first topic

From:Forgotten Battles of the Second World War

Brazil Goes to War



It is not generally known that Brazil played a role in the Allied victory in World War 2, yet the forces of that country were actively involved in the war against the axis on two different fronts. The story of "Brazil's War" is presented here.


Since 1930, Brazil had been ruled by Getúlio Vargas, who seized power in the best South American style, with an armed column marching its way to Rio de Janeiro, then capital of the country. The country was seeing the rise of a harsh dictatorship that was to end only after the collapse of the Third Reich.

In 1937 a mock plan was devised inside the Army staff, its intention being to pass off warning of a fictitious plot threatening internal stability, and a repression apparatus was put into action. Thus, a coup d'etat was given inside the other by the murky Vargas. He had a strong inclination for the totalitarian European dictatorships; his chief of staff openly sympathized with the German government, as well as many leading personalities of the country's political life. With the outbreak of the war, Vargas stood for neutrality.

A representative part of the civilian officials working alongside Vargas, however, was profoundly distasteful of these pro-fascist manifestations and so they played an important part on the decision to join the Allies in the fight against Hitler.

During the negotiations between Americans and Brazilians, Vargas managed to gain technical advice from the U.S. to build the Volta Redonda steel mill. Even before the declaration of war on Germany, Brazil had been sending raw materials to Allied nations.



This would be the beginning of an all-out effort, which culminated with the Brazilian Expeditionary Force being sent to fight in Europe.

The Northeastern coast of Brazil was considered the weakest point of a possible invasion of the Americas, which by 1941, with the Axis' successful campaign in North Africa, was justly feared. After summits between Roosevelt and Vargas'
representatives, they both agreed on limited cooperation, and this would include permission for the Americans to establish a massive air base complex in the Northern city of Natal, which would become known as the "Springboard of Victory", bringing constant supplies to the troops in North Africa, and with the Brazilian Army maintaining coastal defenses in the area.


Soon German and Italian reprisals would be heard of. From 1941 to 1943, 32 Brazilian vessels fell victim of U-boats all along the coast, with painful consequences to the national spirit, which eventually led to the declaration of war on Germany and Italy in August 1942, a bold decision for a country such as Brazil, when the outcome of the war was far from predictable.

The first effective military actions were soon to follow, and the fledgling Brazilian Air Force managed constant patrolling of the country's shores.


Brazillian P-40E's on home defense duties

Patrolling was also a task of the Navy, and a part of the fleet escorted convoys along the Atlantic. By 1943, the outmost post occupied by Brazilians was the paradisiacal but unfamiliar island of Fernando de Noronha, 100 km off the coast of Pernambuco.

But this did not fulfill the population's strong desire to take revenge for the casualties in the sunken ships, and as a point of honour, Vargas decided to form the core of an Expeditionary Force in August 1943. This also helped to divert attention from the atrocities committed by the government against those who dared to complain. This course of action was also a result of extensive talks between Roosevelt and Vargas. The Expeditionary Force was also an excellent chance for the Army to catch up with more modern weaponry.

Things are much easily said than done, especially when the Brazilian Army was living on WWI leftovers. The last shot in anger outside the border had been fired in 1870, in the war against Paraguay which started in 1865. Even though the 1932 Revolution, led by the state of São Paulo against the Vargas Government, saw on several occasions some very heavy fighting, in terms of ground operations it involved nothing more than traditional infantry line attacks and trench warfare. In 1943 the combat experience of officers and NCOs was scarcely above nil.

During the 20's and well into the 30's a French military mission was responsible for the formation of officers and the Army's organization, so it closely followed the French doctrine of the 1914-18 war. By 1943 the standard weapons were the 1908 Mauser rifle, Hotchkiss and Madsen machine guns, C-96 and Luger pistols, ZB 26 and Hotchkiss automatic rifles, small mortars and the 75mm Krupp field gun. In 1940 the Army had bought a shipment of infantry weapons from Germany, but it was entirely seized by the British as soon as it left to Brazil by ship.

From the beginning it was agreed by both sides that the organization of the FEB (from now on, Brazilian Expeditionary Force will be referred to by its Portuguese abbreviation, FEB for Força Expedicionária Brasileira) would follow the U.S. Army pattern of multiple 3 units in the infantry division. Once only a single infantry division was hastily build up from an assortment of battalions, it would be the sole member of the FEB. General Mascarenhas de Moraes was nominated to command it, and he duly started working to put the division together, which he got to do only as late as December 1943, typical of Brazilian red tape and lack of quick decision making, if not by his fault, also due to many officers being contrary to direct involvement in the war. Volunteering was opened, reservists called up and conscription intensified.

There were a series of setbacks concerning the early stages of the FEB organization, especially regarding its training stages. It had been previously combined that the 1st Expeditionary Infantry Division (1st DIE, for Divisão de Infantaria Expedicionária), was to be sent to a theater of operations presenting the closest similarity possible to Brazilian climatic conditions. By the time of its birth, the obvious front to send the FEB was North Africa, but the Allies ability to end the war in that theater seemed to top Brazilian enthusiasm. As a result, Gen. Mascarenhas visited the Italian battle fronts early in 1944, since that at least during summer time Italy's climate would not be so hard to withstand for men accustomed to very hot weather, as it was thought by high ranking Brazilian officers. How wrong they were.

Infantry training consisted of every type of warfare possible but mountain warfare, and this was the typical terrain that the Brazilians faced in Italy. For the majority of the troops, training was given to a reasonable degree, but still far from what
average U.S. infantry divisions were used to. All along the FEB campaign, dated tactical mentality would pose a grave hindrance for the FEB riflemen, not because lack of combat experience, which they painstakingly acquired, rather because
sheer incompetence from commanders. This situation was to last until almost the very end of the war. Artillery, reconnaissance and engineering efficiency was satisfactorily achieved without major problems. Coordination between services, though, was still a point to be better worked on; this was done as far as circumstances allowed, even in the field.

The 1st DIE was organized after U.S. standards. The three infantry regiments chosen to form it were units with considerable tradition within the Brazilian Army. They were from different military commands of the country, but came all from about the same region, being uniform in composition as far as quality of the troops go. The wide majority of rank and file were in their early twenties, a number of the field officers were civilian reservists hastily drafted. For Brazilian standards of 1943, health conditions of the troops were above those of the Brazilian Territorial Army. All men sent to fight in Italy were under the "special class" category, but they still left much to be desired since there was a considerable rate of evasion during the conscription stages. Deficiency of health conditions was therefore more a result of simple rush to put the division together than difficulty to find able men. This fact can be compensated by mentioning that after the men were engaged, there were no more than a dozen deserters, and once in Europe, there were a mere two cases of desertion in a force of 25,445 men and women.

It seems like the Brazilian Division managed to maintain some pride in belonging, once they were a very small particle of an Army whose main body was to remain in peaceful shores.
About 80% of riflemen were between 22 and 25 years old, with some 2 or 3 years service. They were accustomed to the severe discipline of the caste like Brazilian Army. For example, regulations provided that a private must salute a corporal on all occasions; soldiers, when riding on a bus, were to yield their seat to officers. Even during peacetime, other ranks were not allowed to wear civilian clothes, a rule to which officers did not apply. There was no trace of friendship or comraderie between officers and men whatsoever, rations and meals differed, enlisted men were very poorly fed. This state of affairs was to change dramatically after initial contacts with other Allied forces.

1a. DIE was shipped to Europe in three separate echelons. The first unit to embark was the 6th Infantry Regiment, from the State of São Paulo, along an artillery group and other support units. They landed in Naples on July 16th, 1944. The 1st and 11th Infantry Regiments, from the states of Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, respectively, along with the remaining part of the division, arrived in Italy on October 6th. Repple Depple personnel and the rest of the force kept coming until February. In November, a fighting group of the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) arrived, with some 500 men, joining 357th Fighting Squadron with P-47s.

In view of its advanced training stage, the 6th IR was called upon in first place. They were a sort of spearhead, charged with the task of feeling up the ground for the remainder of the troops. Sent to the Arno and Sercchio river valleys, after a short adaptation period, they did well in the first minor actions, mainly reconnaissance and patrolling missions, having liberated a number of Tuscan villages. The first combat order was received on September 15th, it consisted of a reconnaissance action in the small city of Massarossa, but the Brazilians ended up taking the city. After Massarossa came Bozzano, Camaiore, Monte Prano and others. Due to the large amount of men of Italian extraction in the 6th Regiment, friendly contact with the Italian civilians was a positive trait of the whole campaign, and this can also be extended to the other Brazilian units.

Proceeding in its attempt to break the Gothic Line before the winter, IV Corps threw the 6th Regiment against the German positions in the vicinity of Castelnuovo di Garfagnana. On October 28th, the 6th IR took Barga and during the ensuing days it advanced and took Sommocolonia and other surrounding villages. On October 30th the 1st Battalion plus 7th company from the III Battalion (rifle companies were numbered 1 to 9) advanced against Hill 906 and held ground. They were facing the recently raised Monterosa Division. Though this unit had been trained in Germany, both the opponents' front-line experience
was about the same. The Brazilians attacked by surprise and took about 80 Italians prisoner. "We came through the woods, from where they were not expecting us", recalled Vicente Gratagliano, from 1st company. "We took two Italians who were guarding a machine gun, and they led us to a tent where we captured a whole squad who was there playing cards, such was the surprise".

With the four companies thinly spread across the front and the rest of the regiment in reserve, peril lurked right in front of the battle weary Brazilians. They had advanced in the direction of the only German outfit in the whole area, 2nd battalion of the 284th Regiment, of the 148th Infantry Division. In the early hours of October 31st the four companies suffered a severe mortar barrage, which kept the men from receiving supplies. It didn't take long to see the swarms of soldiers clad in filed gray advancing towards the Brazilians. With great determination, four infantry attacks were beat off, without artillery support, for the communication lines had been cut. All of the four companies were attacked subsequently, all having its ammunition extinguished to the very last round. A lieutenant from the 1st company would recall:

"One of the men came up to me and said 'Sir, I ran out of bullets'. Soon after this men asking about what to do surrounded me. I told them to let the Germans come as close as possible, and only shoot to kill. Then the Germans came again, and I could see them getting killed at no more than 5 meter from our foxholes. I clearly remember a German with a hand held machine gun and another one beside him feeding the weapon, coming towards us. After the fourth wave with all men having virtually ran out of all ammunition, we were forced to run away".

The 1st and 11th Infantry Regiments arrived at the front by early November. The whole division was then posted to the mountains to the south of Bologna, in time to get grasp of what the first blizzards would mean to them. Brazilians are not
accustomed to subzero temperatures, and snow was a true challenge to those men. Alongside Task Force 45 and Gardiner Force of the U.S. Army, they charged against Monte Castello and Monte Belvedere on three occasions under command of IV Corps, and again on November 29th and December 12th, under Brazilian commanders supervision. These last two attempts would prove catastrophic for them. FEB generals had insisted on frontal assaults against heavily guarded positions, without air support and insufficient shelling. The ranks sustained 344 casualties in the last two attacks. The generals would learn the hard
way, at the footsloggers expense, that those masses could not be taken short of diversionary actions. Though planning of operations was shameful, the men gave proof of extreme courage and valor, albeit this was useless against the devilish MG 42s in their way. Antonio Amaru, a private in the 1st Regiments 8th company commented about the December 12th attack "while advancing we started to draw machine gun fire. I threw myself into a ditch and wasn't able to raise my head for two hours, or else I would have been shot. My company, which was in the center of the attack echelon, had to close ranks to allow the other two companies in the III battalion to retreat."
By this time, soldiers of the division had adopted an arm patch depicting a green snake smoking a pipe, a pun at a pre-war joke that went by saying it was more likely to see a snake smoking than a Brazilian fighting in Europe. However, according to many Brazilian veterans, the slang "the snake is going to smoke" was created among the troops meaning that a fight was about to happen.

For the remainder of the winter, the 1st DIE, along with 5th Army, kept the pressure against the Germans. The main actions during winter months were basically patrolling, something which Brazilians quickly learned to do very well. Several of them received American, British and French decorations due to this type of action, especially in the 6th Regiment. It seems like the Germans gave importance to the presence of a Brazilian force in Italy, since they bothered to send pamphlets and broadcasts in Portuguese, through a propaganda radio station called the "Goldgreen Hour".

By January 1945 the 1st DIE was flanking the famous 10th Mountain Division, a new arrival to the front. The Brazilians would then have to support the 10th Division's main attacks against Mounts Belvedere and Gorogolesco, and on February 21st, the 1st Regiment took Monte Castello from II Battalion of the 1043 Regiment of the 232nd German Division.

Monte Castello is more a symbolic victory than a decisive one. It served as a means for the soldiers to gain confidence in their commanders, to renew their self-esteem after a very intense period of distress, since it was the division's first successful major operation.

After Monte Castello and other actions, the 1st DIE played an important role in the conquest of a series of mountains in the Reno Valley, until time came for the Spring Offensive and the final thrust into the Po Valley.

On April 14th, flanked by the 1st Armored Division, they attacked the city of Montese, a strong point of the last Nazi attempt to hold the Allies before the Po Valley. Montese was the bloodiest episode in which the Brazilians got involved, sustaining 426 casualties in four consecutive days until the city and neighboring hills were completely dominated, a fight that engaged almost all of the division's infantry battalions.

A curious happening was to follow the battle for Montese: on April 29th, the 6th Regiment plus a few M-8 scout cars of the Reconnaissance Squadron captured 1 German division plus what was left of Italian divisions Monterosa and Italia that formed Kampfgruppe Fretter-Pico in the Parma area. It is interesting to observe that this battle group comprised the remains of the 90th Panzergrenadier Division and the almost intact 148th Division, the first unit to inflict a defeat on the Brazilians. One thing that makes a Brazilian veteran proud to talk about his experience in the war was the human treatment they gave to war prisioners, regardless of previous skirmishes. There is a vast array of wartime snapshots showing cheerful Brazilians side by side with their former German opponents, still in uniform. This version is sustained by German accounts.

The participation of the Brazilian Expeditionary Force in the Italian Campaign may seem a minor detail of a war that involved millions of men and women, but it is worthwhile to remember that the simple but valorous soldiers of the division overcame terrible odds, regarding both training and leadership.

Most of the soldiers were conscripts, from a rural background. Their ascendance included Japanese, Polish, Russian, African, German, Italian, Portuguese and many other origins. The Brazilian Army was not segregated, one of its positive points.

Recently, it has been speculated that the FEB does not stand up for the time and money spent on it. However, its history is still to be written. Not too much information is available outside Brazil, apart from US and British official records.

Moreover, the Brazilian soldiers fighting in Europe faced an ironic dilemma: "How can we be fighting for Democracy if we don't have it back home?" When the troops returned to Brazil, Vargas was finally overthrown.

They had lost 480 men killed, 2064 wounded and 34 MIAs. On the other hand, the FEB captured 20, 573 prisoners prior to the end of the war.

Special thanks go out to Cesar Campiani Maximiano ([email protected]) for providing me with this tutorial.Cesar is 28 years old and has published a book about the FEB in Brazil, as well as articles in GI Journal and Militaria Magazine. He is a professional historian and a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Sao Paulo.

He lists his references as:
José Gonçalves, Nosso revés em Sommocollonia, in Depoimento de Oficiais da Reserva Sobre a FEB. São Paulo,
Frank McCann Brazilian American Alliance.
Rudolf Bohmler, Monte Cassino.

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